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Integrity vs sales

Gabriel DomínguezOctober 30, 2013

China's censors are known for having a heavy hand. But this doesn't seem to deter a growing number of foreign authors from complying with "local" rules in order to sell their works in one of the world's biggest markets.

Black book with chain, isolated on white (Photo: Africa Studio)
Image: Fotolia/Africa Studio

Qiu Xiaolong's mystery thrillers have sold more than a million copies worldwide. But when the US-based writer decided to publish his "Inspector Chen" crime series in his native country of China, he was in for a surprise.

"A couple of months before the scheduled release, the Chinese publishers announced dramatic cuts and changes had to be made. Naturally, I protested, but they maintained that they would get fined and lose their jobs if they did not cooperate with the censorship authorities. That really put me in a tight spot."

From Shanghai to 'H City'

The "Inspector Chen" novels take place in Shanghai, the Chinese mega city where Qiu was born and raised. But this was also the main problem: "The censors insisted my novels could not be set in Shanghai, as stories of crime and corruption could tarnish the image of the city as well as of local authorities. So they changed the name of the setting to 'H City' in the Chinese translation."

Despite these and many other alterations made after what he believed was the final translation of his works, Qiu agreed to publish: "Even with cuts and changes, it's better than nothing," the 60-year-old told DW. So far his first three novels have sold more than 35,000 copies across China.

Pile of books on a black background (Photo: Fotolia/silver-john)
China has become one of the world's largest and fastest-growing book marketsImage: Fotolia/silver-john

Qiu's story, however, is not an isolated case. With more than 200,000 new titles in 2011 China has become one of the world's largest and fastest-growing book markets.

According to the Australia-based research organization IBISWorld, the book publishing industry's revenue has grown at an average rate of 10.6 percent over the past 5 years and is set to reach USD 12.6 billion in 2013. It is therefore no wonder that Western authors are drawn to this expanding market, seeking the opportunity of reaching millions of potential new readers.

Self-censorship advised?

Any author wanting to sell in the world's most populous nation first has to get pass Beijing's heavy-handed censors and any publisher willing to take on a Western author knows that the work is likely to be looked at even more closely than would a typical Chinese book.

So, berated by their publishers and translators, an increasing number of foreign authors seems willing to comply with Chinese "regulations" and exert some degree of self-censorship up front, as Edward Nawotka, editor-in-chief of the New York-based trade magazine Publishing Perspectives explains.

Rebecca Karl, a professor of modern Chinese history at New York University, recently had to face the tough choice of either allowing her book "Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History" to undergo alterations or not publish in China at all. Karl told DW that the Chinese publisher, Hunan People's Press, was adamant that certain things had to be rephrased, so as to "pre-empt" the censorship process rather than to react to a potential rejection of the complete manuscript.

Rebecca Karl, history professor at New York University; (Photo: Rebecca Karl)
Karl says her manuscript was 'pre-emptively' censored to avoid having it completely rejectedImage: privat

"They cut out any allusions to the June 1989 events in Tiananmen Square; critiques of Chinese reformist leader Deng Xiaoping and the post-Mao reformist path." However, the publisher left everything about Mao Zedong and his era untouched; a compromise Karl could live with. "I am willing to submit to a certain amount of alterations of my text, as long as nothing germane to the basic interpretation is cut," she said.

The now-translated and "pre-emptively censored" version of her manuscript is at the General Administration of Press and Publication awaiting a final determination, Karl added. However, it remains unclear when the Chinese edition of Karl's book will be released, after a previously set publication date was surprisingly canceled.

Operating in a gray area

"Beijing is known for its unpredictability," Nawotka explains. "Publishers and writers are forced to operate in a gray area, where things that are tolerated one day are deemed illegal the next. This leaves many authors in an untenable position, as they are unlikely to know exactly what is going to be censored."

Talk to publishers in China and they will admit, at least anecdotally, some tolerance of free-speech, provided it remains on the very fringes of society. But publications with any reference to the Chinese government, its leaders and the party's history are likely to be carefully examined.

Chinese national flag is raised early in the morning on the Tiananmen Square near the Great Hall of the People where the opening session of the annual National People's Congress will be held in Beijing, China, Monday, March 5, 2012. (Photo: Andy Wong/AP/dapd)
Publications with any reference to China's government, its leaders and the party's history are likely to be scrutinizedImage: dapd

"The censors look at anything to do with politics, sex, drugs, Tibet or Taiwan, as well as the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square protests, for example - anything that touches on China and has potential to be controversial or else might besmirch the country's reputation," Nawotka said.

It is worth pointing out, however, that Beijing doesn't describe this degree of redaction as censorship. It claims that film distributors and its 581 official publishers - all of whom are state-run - merely do what their counterparts in other countries do: assure that works are suitable to national conditions in accordance with national laws.

'Better 90 percent than zero'

The New York Times recently published an article quoting Harvard University professor Ezra F. Vogel as saying that the decision to allow Chinese censors to tinker with his biography of Deng Xiaoping was an unpleasant but necessary bargain, one that allowed the book to reach the kind of enormous readership many Western authors can only dream of. "To me the choice was easy. I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero," Vogel said.

His "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" is reported to have sold 650,000 in China alone, the proceeds of which go to Ohio Wesleyan University, his alma mater. Vogel also pointed out that the publication of his work in mainland China represented a breakthrough, as it allowed Chinese to learn about June 1989 incident in Tiananmen Square.

Eric Abrahamsen, an editor and expert on Chinese translations, says he believes most Western writers are willing to lose an "incorrect" political formulation here and there. "In other cases, however, writers have taken out whole chapters rather than change the meaning substantially," Abrahamsen says, citing Jonathan Spence's "The Search for Modern China", whose English edition covers Chinese history up until the 1990's, whereas the Chinese one stops in 1949.

All the authors interviewed for this article said there was a limit to the amount of censorship they would tolerate, and there are still many who refuse to accept any type of censorship whatsoever.

For Qiu Xiaolong, the number of alterations his publisher wanted to make to his latest "Inspector Chen" novel was the last straw. "When it came to the fourth book - 'A Case of Two Cities' - which is set both in St. Louis and Shanghai, I argued with the publisher again. I told him it would be completely absurd for the Chinese translation to have one real city and one fictional, H City, in the text. So I decided not to give the book right to the Chinese publisher."